Two proposals that would force school district regionalization have ignited a storm of protest in some communities, as well as debate at the State Capitol.
At a packed Education Committee meeting Monday, Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said the “distress” she has heard from constituents about possible forced regionalization “has been so great, I’ve never quite seen anything like it.”
“They don’t feel that someone far away should be telling them what to do with their children, or how to shape the institutions in their town,” Lavielle said. “They really feel the school is the soul of their community.”
Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, countered, saying that if “regionalism is what we have to do to make education in the state of Connecticut work, then we need to figure out how to make that work.
“I know that forcing things is not always the right way to go,” Cook continued, “but sometimes we have to help people get there because they are not going to get there on their own.”
The Education Committee was supposed to be considering a “concept” proposal that would allow schools districts to voluntarily consider ways to regionalize services.
But the conversation at Monday’s meeting instead centered on two bills not formally under consideration. The first, proposed by Sen. President Martin Looney — Senate Bill No. 454 — would force municipalities with populations fewer than 40,000 to consolidate with another district.
The bill calls for the creation of a commission that would be responsible for developing a plan to carry out the regional consolidation of those districts.
“We really have far too many smaller districts,” Looney, D-New Haven, said late Monday afternoon in an interview. “It’s really not fiscally sustainable. Many are losing students. The time has come to undertake reform or at least get a lively and engaged conversation about promoting regionalization.”
Looney said he’s not talking about consolidating schools, but rather consolidating administrative functions so that “economies of scale” can be reached and overhead reduced. He said there are about 25 municipalities with populations greater than 40,000.
The second proposal — Senate Bill No. 457 — would require any district with a student population of fewer than 2,000 students to join a new or existing regional school district so that the total student population of the expanded district is more than 2,000. If a district is not joining a regional district, the bill says, it must inform the state Department of Education in writing about why it is not doing so. This bill was proposed by Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.
The forced regionalization proposals drew quick criticism, however, from newly-elected Democrats from the state’s wealthier communities.
Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, and Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, wrote an open letter stating their opposition to Looney’s plan to regionalize education.
“We need to find greater efficiencies to save tax payer dollars and improve the quality” of education,” Haskell said Monday, “but it must be done with the participation and the consent of the municipality.”
He said the state can incentivize regionalization without forcing it upon towns, noting that he has received hundreds of emails and phone calls opposing forced regionalization.
“I think creating mammoth school districts is not the best route,” he said.
Haskell said he thinks the better approach would be to reform education cost sharing — the state’s system of funding education — “to make sure students with the highest needs are getting state dollars.”
Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said she also has been hearing from many community leaders who are concerned about any effort to force consolidation of school districts.
She said that a bill forcing regionalization “on no other factors except population doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“There are a lot of considerations that tell whether regionalization will work for the community,” she said. “For example, you may have a rural district where regionalization ends up with kids on a bus for more than hour each way — something that is very troublesome for parents and educators and students. One size fits all mandates just won’t work in Connecticut.”
Looney said he realizes that regionalization gets at “the core of the issue of local control that we now have to begin to reform. It will absolutely and necessarily be controversial, but it’s important to begin the discussion.”
There are currently 43 school districts in Connecticut that enroll fewer than 1,000 students, but almost all of them already have regionalized their middle or high schools or both, and 22 districts have only a part-time superintendent.
And further regionalization may not save much in many cases. A 2013 study by the state Department of Education found that higher per-student spending by small districts was “not necessarily the result of being small, but one of ability and choice.”
Rep. Susan Johnson, a Democrat from Windham and a member of the Education Committee, said she favors regionalization efforts for her district, where there is a high concentration of Hispanic children.
“We want to make sure the whole system is integrated,” Johnson said. “I mean Brown vs. Board of Education still exists and we still have inequities in our educational system here in Connecticut.”
Rep. Bobby Sanchez, co-chairman of the Education Committee and a Democrat from New Britain, said he needs to talk to Looney about the bill and study it further before taking a position.
“I’m going to leave everything on the table at this point because I’m a true believer in discussion,” Sanchez said.
Sen. Doug McCrory, the other co-chairman of the Education Committee and a Democrat from Hartford, said he also needed to read the regionalization bills closely. “I’m prepared to listen to what anyone has to say,” McCrory said. “I’m open-minded about ideas.”